Utility gives Williamson free rein on travel

With a new travel budget equal to the $50,000 a year authorized for the entire Santa Rosa County Commission, new Holley Navarre Water System CEO Rob Williamson doesn’t need pre-approval for out-of-town trips to lobby or for other purposes.

Although volunteer utility board President Will Goulet told the Navarre Press that the $50,000 isn’t a largesse for Williamson, the measure passed last week by the Holley Navarre Water System (HNWS) board seems to be exactly that.

“I didn’t hear any requirement for pre-approval from the board for travel,” said Daryl Lynchard, the lone board member who didn’t support the budget item passed by five panel colleagues on Dec. 18.

Goulet didn’t vote because the board president at HNWS only does so in case of a tie.

Goulet asserted that the travel to seek “alternate sources of funding” is needed.

“We haven’t had a seat at the table in Tallahassee when grants and legislative allocations were discussed in a long time,” said Goulet.

And whoever may do the traveling, Goulet said, “It will have to be approved by the board on a case-by-case basis.”

But that requirement isn’t written into the budget item that the board passed, which appears to allow Williamson complete discretion over when and where he goes, and how much he spends.

And in a video of the Dec. 18 meeting posted online, Williamson specifically objected to case-by-case oversight of his travel. Williamson said the travel budget should be administered “where we wouldn’t have to come back to the board for every single item.”

Lynchard, a former president of the board, opposed Williamson’s hiring in November as the new utility CEO at a salary of $100,000 a year.

No other candidates were interviewed and the job wasn’t advertised, thanks to some board members who are friends and political supporters of Williamson—a one-term county commissioner soundly defeated for re-election by Dave Piech in August.

Have budget, will travel

Still, the new travel budget isn’t the norm at some area water utilities.

Neither South Santa Rosa Utility System nor Fairpoint Regional Utility System—the collective that sells water to HNWS, among others—has such money set aside.

As the former District 4 county commissioner, Williamson traveled extensively to Tallahassee, Washington D.C. and other destinations for various meetings of organizations such as the National Association of Counties.

But Goulet said the HNWS travel money might be used by any one of several staffers to travel, “not just Rob.”

For example, Goulet mentioned Phil Phillips, the utility’s senior engineer, as one possible candidate to carry requests about HNWS’ financial needs to state officials.

That’s the procedure in rare instances when SSRU personnel travel, said Tom Naile, that board’s chairman.

“I can’t just take off somewhere and bill them for my travel expenses when I get back,” Naile told the Navarre Press.

Goulet said the board will be careful not to involve Williamson in any HNWS business that might violate a state statute that restricts lobbying by former county commissioners.

Grappling with infrastructure costs

Separately, Holley Navarre Water is facing a $1.3 million repair bill after an accident in September at its Pepper Drive plant that caused the loss of a quarter of the utility’s wastewater treatment capacity.

Originally the damage was estimated at no more than $1 million by Paul Gardner, who retires this month as HNWS general manager.

But the repair bids came in higher than expected and the board has selected North Florida Construction Inc. to replace the damaged tank, in which suspended solids are removed following biological treatment before filtration.

Goulet told a reporter that companies such as Florida Construction are busy with repair projects in the Panama City area following Hurricane Michael.

“It could be six months” before the HNWS tank, called a clarifier, is replaced, Goulet said.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is monitoring the efforts of HNWS staff to safely treat and dispose of effluent. No sewage has leaked so far, Goulet said.














Click here to view a video from the Dec. 18 HNWS budget meeting.

Read the full article in the Jan. 3 issue of Navarre Press.

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